Navigating Today’s Complex Business Environment

CEO of Milestone Systems.

Do we need to rethink the traditional approach to recruiting? The traditional approach involves hiring people with the best functional skills for the job, but who are the best people for today’s jobs?

To navigate today’s complex business environment, instead of individuals, we must construct teams of people who have mixed backgrounds and characteristics and, most importantly, who think differently from each other. I use “construct” here purposefully. Of course, the team must have the skills to do the job, but to maximize performance, we must deliberately select people who have different approaches to solving business problems. Deliberately driving diversity is the way to create the best teams of people for future jobs.

What Does Diversity Look Like?

When I talk with people about diversity, the conversation typically centers around differences in gender and race. That’s part of it, but to construct strong, diverse teams, it’s equally as important to look for people who have different ways of thinking combined with unfamiliar perspectives and insights.

Teams of people with similar backgrounds and education are likely to have similar ideas and can tend to get stuck in the same place. In contrast, diverse teams are more likely to produce fresh ideas to overcome obstacles and avoid getting stuck.

One of the first things we did when we updated our company’s strategy was to expand the executive team and deliberately select new members who would enhance its diversity. Today, our chief marketing officer is a woman with a strong commercial and scientific background, and our chief technology officer grew up and was educated in India and has worked in a very different business. More important, both came from outside of our industry, bringing different ways of thinking and novel approaches to growing our business. For future C-level appointments, we are purposely looking to expand our leadership team’s diversity even further.

I previously discussed using personality assessments to help evaluate how well someone interacts with other people and manage their competencies (values, behaviors and traits). These can also be valuable for understanding the way people think about problems and their approach to finding solutions. You can use this insight to deliberately drive diversity in your teams.

Why Are Diverse Teams Better For Performance?

For straightforward, consistent tasks, diversity can be a distraction. A homogenous team of top performers with similar backgrounds and education can perform well. However, today’s business problems are complicated and change quickly and frequently. In this complex, inconsistent situation, a diverse group’s different frames of reference can enable it to far outperform homogenous groups.

Teams of similar individuals selected using the traditional “best functional skills for the job” approach work together in a way that can create an echo chamber. They immerse themselves in a self-confirming environment of individuals with similar views and approaches to problem-solving. Working in an echo chamber can cause the team to have blind spots that can lead to disastrous consequences for business decisions.

Increasingly, the dynamic world that businesses operate in requires new ways of thinking and diverse perspectives from many devil’s advocates to help drive growth. I believe businesses that adapt to this “new normal” of increased diversity are better positioned to win in a competitive, complex marketplace.

Diversity Requires Leaders To Work Harder

Deliberately constructing diverse teams of people who think differently can have many advantages for performance, but it can be a challenge for leadership. To avoid an atmosphere of “me versus the rest” tension, leaders must work to build a work environment in which diversity is valued and all types of people feel included.

Most importantly, people must feel safe in sharing minority viewpoints and different approaches because it stimulates divergent thinking. Even when they turn out to be wrong, they can lead to the discovery of novel solutions that would otherwise have remained hidden from the team. Creating that psychological safety to debate passionately is the secret to finding better solutions to business challenges.

Be aware that there is a subtle problem here. For individuals to maintain their different ways of thinking requires significant amounts of mental energy. The tendency is for people to assimilate toward a company’s culture, and over time, this can lessen their ability to express what they truly think. This requires leaders to work harder to avoid this gradual erosion of diversity. It’s more than simply acknowledging differences; it calls for an individual approach to motivating the team’s members.

Leading A Diverse Organization

To drive diversity in an organization, leaders must avoid the trap of one-size-fits-all thinking. They need to adapt their leadership style to match individuals’ needs in order to catalyze the divergent thinking process. This calls for a humble approach—actively listening to different ideas and points of view as well as checking to make sure everyone feels that their input has been heard.

However, divergent thinking cannot go on forever. It is critical to recognize when there are enough ideas on the table and then start to guide the process to converge on a decision. Once a decision is reached, leaders must be confident to enroll the team and the rest of the organization behind the decision.

Guidelines To Get Started

Diversity enables an organization to win in complex business environments and enhances its ability to compete in global markets. Here are three simple guidelines to help you follow a “people first” approach to creating strong, diverse teams and taking on today’s business challenges:

1. Avoid mirroring yourself. Recruit people who have different ways of thinking with unfamiliar perspectives and insights.

2. Create an environment in which people feel safe in sharing minority viewpoints and different approaches.

3. Take a humble approach. Actively listen to different ideas and points of view, and recognize when to guide the process to converge on a decision.

To navigate the increasingly complex business environment in the future, we must drive diversity in teams by deliberately selecting team members with different backgrounds and new approaches to business.

That’s people first, and that’s good for business.

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